'Teacher says." The phrase combines the child's idiom with a familiar tone of authority. It's also the name of a newspaper column by Evelyn Porreca Vuko, a 53-year-old teacher who's something of an Ann Landers for the school parent.
Vuko's 1,000 or so words of advice appear monthly in the Washington Post and as many as 30 other papers nationwide, making her America's most widely read practicing educator. She offers tips on everything from learning styles to summer reading lists to the spread of germs in classrooms. Though she eschews a question-and-answer format, Vuko culls most of her column topics from questions posed by readers (from as far away as India) via e-mail, her Web site (www.teachersays.com), and her regular online chat for the Post.
"I call myself the Great Distiller," says the woman who spent 15 years in the classroom and now works from her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. "Many parents get frightened by a teacher's diagnosis of their child's talents and disabilities, especially when we cloak it in the jargon of our field so as not to hurt people's feelings. In the column, I try to distill things so parents know what their child is going through when the teacher says she can't ride a tricycle because her psychomotor development is impaired."
Vuko is not the only educator out there with a newspaper column. High school instructor Rob Kyff wrestles, William Safire-like, with grammar questions twice a week in the Hartford Courant's "Word Watch." And the presidents of both national teachers' unions—Bob Chase of the National Education Association and Sandy Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers—regularly buy space in national newspapers and magazines to sound off on education and school reform issues.
Vuko, however, is the only nationally syndicated teacher translating the art of teaching for parents. Once upon a time, such an intermediary was hardly necessary. Teachers were viewed as experts, and parents almost universally accepted their methods. No more. "Too often, parents and teachers are ready to believe the worst about each other today," writes William Cutler in his new book Parents and Schools. Teacher strikes in the 1960s first damaged educators' credibility, Cutler argues, but new instructional approaches have fueled the school-family cold war. Increasingly, parents see schools as a foreign land where people speak gibberish and traffic in strange customs.
The need for "Teacher Says" occurred to Vuko in the mid-1990s. She knew of the rising pressures on (and from) parents for kids to do well in school, and she was less than impressed with how pundits and the mainstream media handled disputatious topics such as whole-language reading instruction. "I saw a lot of writing by people who weren't seeing things from the inside, who were pontificating about education issues without having been in the classroom."
When Vuko proposed a column to Post editors, they were already running child-rearing and family-life advice by author Marguerite Kelly (one of Vuko's mentors). Teachers occasionally byline stories in the Post's opinion pages and magazine—Alexandria, Virginia, high school teacher Patrick Welsh is a regular contributor—but these read more like dispatches from education's front lines. Vuko, the Post editors decided, offered something different. "Evelyn's approach to writing for parents is funny, fresh, and a little quirky," says Kate Carlisle, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, which picked up Vuko's column soon after it appeared in the Post. "It's a very authoritative teacher's voice and is reassuring to parents, which is what clients want. Editors call to ask for her photo and to find out what she's writing about next."
This is not Vuko's first foray into journalism—she wrote a column about her high school for a local newspaper—but teaching has been her lifelong passion. At 5, as a kindergartner in suburban Philadelphia, she fell in love with her teacher and announced her intended career in a class report. After graduating from Villanova University, she joined the faculty of that same elementary school and was reunited with the woman who inspired her two decades before. Vuko went on to classroom and administrative posts in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Maryland and was once the admissions director for a private academy and head of its lower school.
Vuko's move to newspaper writing followed the devastating discovery that she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. To beat the cancer, she quit full-time work—she still tutors kids in her home part time—and set about reinventing her career. The result? A proposal to the Post's executive editor with the clincher, "You need me." Her first column ran in August 1995.
Over the years, Vuko has developed a warm, conversational style. She delivers short, punchy sentences, and her advice is practical and concrete. Discussing a girl's struggle with math, for example, she suggests a possible "mismatch" between the student's learning style and the teacher's approach, asking, "Would food-based examples provide her better memory links than football analogies?"
"In every situation, I try to write with a clear, uncluttered mind, with a focus on the child," she says. "No one ever objects to common sense."
With a wealth of classroom experience and two master's degrees—one in education, and another in education administration—Vuko draws from her own knowledge to write each column. But she freely turns to experts and has cultivated sources—nutritionists, psychologists, and teachers—that many education reporters would covet. "It took me five years to establish a network of contacts," she says, "but now people come to me and ask me to write about their work."
Though parents most often ask for her advice about how to best nurture their children's learning styles, she's also written about such practical topics as picking schools for children, preparing for the parent-teacher conference, and dealing with the pressure of standardized tests.
Her favorite columns explore new teaching methods. In one, she discusses how kids involved in playground scuffles draw comic strip scenes of the incident to help sort out their feelings. She also favors instruction that taps a child's natural interests. "Tessie dyed her hair with hydrogen peroxide and powdered Kool-Aid," she began a column in 1998. "She wanted Atomic Turquoise, but what she got was U-Haul Orange. Now she's suddenly, hysterically interested in chemistry."
Vuko, however, refuses to be pigeonholed in the progressivism vs. back-to- basics debate. In a column last year on discipline, she talked about a range of approaches, from the "Authoritarian" style to the "Good Buddy" system, and urged parents to use whatever's appropriate for their children.
Parents who ask Vuko to choose sides in the curriculum wars will be disappointed. "My philosophy is whatever works for kids," she says. "I believe all truly creative teachers use the mandated curriculum as a basis for teaching and then adapt it, amend it, enhance it, make it fit the kids sitting in front of them. I never taught the same way two years in a row. I don't know any successful teachers who do."
Vuko occasionally encounters parents who claim to know more about teaching than teachers. "One copy editor at the Post tried to tell me how to teach reading," she chuckles. And after a column suggesting parents consult a graphologist to improve a student's penmanship, one reader came down hard on her, asking, "What kind of occult sciences are you recommending?"
Obviously, the work of the Great Distiller is never done.
Vol. 12, Issue 3, Pages 15-17Published in Print: November 1, 2000, as Dear Evelyn